Craig Allen Smith – The Surfacing Stage of the 2016 American Presidential Campaign: A Status Report

This is a guest post by Craig Allen Smith, Professor Emeritus of Communication at North Carolina State University. It summaries his book, Presidential Campaign Communication, 2nd edition. Cambridge: Polity, 2015.

Portions of this research were reported at the annual conference of the Central States Communication Associaton in Grand Rapids, Michigan (April 15-16, 2016).

American presidential campaign communication is a series of rhetorical transactions among three sets of participants: Citizens, Campaigners, and Reporters. Their trialogue unfolds in four functional stages — Surfacing, Nominating, Consolidating, and Electing — during which participants trade words and symbolic actions for attention, campaign resources, and votes (Smith, 2015). The purpose of this report is to assess the Surfacing stage of the 2016 campaign preparatory to the Nominating stage.

2016 Surfacing: November 2012-February 1, 2016

Surfacing crystallizes the campaign as participants rhetorically constitute its rules, issue publics, news habits, and candidacies. For 2016 these included the primary, caucus, and convention schedules; the parties’ delegate allocation rules, and the rules and  schedules for televised debates.  Additionally, several states enacted photo ID laws to prevent “voter fraud” that complicated voting by minorities.

Issue Surfacing

The Surfacing trialogue produced two competing rhetorical agendas as Democrats and Republicans debated different issues. Both Newsweek (Mosendz, 2016) and The New York Times (Keller & Yourish, 2016) posted visualizations of the parties’ different issue spheres. Democrats argued about income inequality, Wall Street’s influence, education, criminal justice, race, women’s right, energy, and the environment. Republicans argued about excessive government, the Constitution, the legacy of Ronald Reagan, religious liberty, gay marriage, immigration, military power, Israel, North Korea, and China. Additionally, the Republican candidates exchanged (frequently undignified) personal attacks whereas the Democrats contested policies. Reporters rarely raised the same issues with the two parties’ candidates, thus exacerbating the polarization between the partisan communities.

Gallup (2016) tracks Citizens’ perception of the “most important problem” facing the US, and we can consider as “issue publics” the clusters of Citizens around each problem. Sustained campaign communication should theoretically (a) narrow the range of problems deemed “most important” and (b) grow the publics most worried about a handful of problems.

Comparing Gallup’s February polls from 2015 and 2016 confirms neither expectation. Although ten issues still accounted for 80% of Americans’ concerns, that was a 7% decline. Surfacing increased only four issue publics. “Immigrants and aliens” now worry 10% (up from 6%) and “national security” worries 7% (up from 4%), yet both remain small clusters. The economy in general and unemployment/jobs still worry the most people (17% and 10%, respectively), but each increased an insignificant 1%. Moreover, Surfacing rendered the other six issues less worrisome.  “Dissatisfaction with Government” (13%), health care (6%), and ethical, moral, and family decline (2%) each declined 4%; terrorism (7%), education (5%), and poverty (3%) languish in single digits. In short, Surfacing barely affected the American issue landscape.

Media Surfacing

During Surfacing Citizens decide where to find the campaign information they want.  The Pew Research Center (Gottfried et al., 2016) reported 91% of respondents learning about the campaign in the week studied; half from five or more sources. Cable news networks were most prominent (24%) and considered the most helpful (41%), especially for people over age 30.  Social media ranked ranked first among those under-30 (35%), second overall (14%), but rapidly disappear as respondents’ age.  Some 13% learned from news websites or apps while still fewer learned from radio (11%) or traditional television networks (10%). Only 5% learned from print newspapers and just 3% used websites, apps, or emails from candidates, campaigns, or issue-based groups. The late-night comedy shows so prominent in 2012 informed only 3%. Sources requiring  information seeking — candidate and interest group sites, print media, and even books — were used by just 8% of respondents.

Candidate Surfacing: The Five Indices

Candidates’ Surfacing can be measured with five indices: fundraising, endorsements, media coverage, national polls, and success in Iowa’s caucuses (Smith, 2015).


Campaigners trade words for dollars to finance their campaigns. Some pursue wealthy donors while a few court small donations, and their audience choices constrain their potential messages. According to the Federal Election Commission (2016) the most effective fundraisers were Democrats Hillary Clinton (76 million US$) and Bernie Sanders (41), and Republicans Ben Carson (31), Ted Cruz (26), and Jeb Bush (24). Importantly, several mega-donors (including the Koch brothers) have withheld their hundreds of millions until the Republican nominee is decided.


Because the parties nominate, many elected officials endorse presidential candidates. Following Cohen, Karol, Noell & Zaller (2008), Bycoffe (2016) developed an “Endorsement Primary” by awarding one point for each congressional endorsement, five points for senatorial endorsements, and ten points for each state governor’s endorsement.  Hillary Clinton finished the Surfacing period with 463 endorsement points; Jeb Bush led Republicans with 51 and Marco Rubio had 43. Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz were essentially shut out. Clearly, Republican endorsements were being held in abeyance.

Media Coverage

Candidates need media coverage to reach Citizens, and television remains the leading source of information (Gottfried, Barthel, Shearer, & Mitchell, 2016). Google’s Gdelt (2016) searchable 2016 Television News Tracker database shows that Donald Trump led all candidates with 213,000 mentions (43% of Republican coverage). Clinton’s 143,000 mentions provided 74% of Democrats’ coverage. Jeb Bush ranked third (80,000) and Sanders fourth (42,000). Trump attracted a great deal of coverage by saying outlandish, provocative things, and much of Clinton’s coverage was unfavorable or investigative. Nonetheless, media coverage of them left the other candidates struggling to reach Citizens.

National Polls

National opinion polls are a familiar index of name recognition and general popularity but their utility is limited because the US holds neither a national primary election nor a popular vote for president. With so many crude estimates, the three-poll rolling average developed by Real Clear Politics (2016) is helpful. At Surfacing’s end Clinton polled 52% to 37% for Sanders among likely Democratic voters. Among likely Republican voters Trump polled 35%, Cruz 20%, and Rubio 20%. Because Americans are 29% Democrats, 26% Republicans, and thus 45% unaffiliated; and because 30% of Americans do not vote even in presidential elections, the poll data tempt us to candidate  support.

Iowa Precinct Caucuses

Surfacing culminated in the February 1 Iowa precinct caucuses.  Nomination depends on party convention delegates of which Iowa provides but 1% (and awards them in state conventions after all primaries have been held). But success in Iowa reflects each campaign’s ability to strategically mobilize resources. It is mainly symbolic, but symbolic events shape news narratives.

The Des Moines Register (2016) reported that Iowa Republicans who attended their local caucuses voted 27.6% for Cruz, 24.3% for Trump, and 23.1% for Rubio. Democrats who caucus for candidate preference groups and elect delegates to their county conventions; Clinton won 667 to 663 for Sanders.

The Candidate Surfacing Sweepstakes

For Campaigners, Surfacing is a scramble toward the top. We can best assess it by aggregating their rankings on the five indices (Smith, 2015).

Table 1 shows that Clinton ran the Surfacing table, trailed by Sanders. The Surfacing contest that had already discourage Jim Webb and Lincoln Chaffee claimed O’Malley on caucus night, leaving Clinton and Sanders to advance to the Nominating Stage.




TV coverage


National polls




Total Ranks
Clinton 1 1 1 1 1 5
Sanders 2 2 2 2 2 10
O’Malley 3 3 3 3 3 3

Table 1: Democrats’ Surfacing

Republican Surfacing was more complicated, as shown in Table 2. Surfacing difficulties ended the campaigns of George Pataki, Bobby Jindal, Lindsay Graham, and Scott Walker before Iowa; they were quickly joined by Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and Carly Fiorina. Marco Rubio ranked well on all five measures; Cruz received modest endorsements and coverage and Bush performed well except, problematically, for national polls and Iowa voters.  Trump led in coverage, national polls, and Iowans but received no endorsements and few dollars from others, whereas Ben Carson surfaced well except for endorsements. John Kasich finished only eighth in Surfacing but chose to persist nonetheless.




TV coverage


National polls




Total Ranks
Cruz 2 6 5 2 1 16
Rubio 4 2 4 3 3 16
Bush 3 1 2 5 6 17
Trump 7 11 1 1 2 22
Carson 1 10 3 4 4 22
Paul 5 7 7 7.5 5 31.5
Christie 9 3.5 6 6 9.5 34
Kasich 8 5 9 7.5 7.5 37
Fiorina 6 8 8 10 7.5 39.5
Huckabee 10 3.5 10 9 9.5 42
Santorum 11 9 11 11 11 53

Table 2: Republicans’ Surfacing


The Surfacing stage of the 2016 American presidential campaign brought mixed results. Inevitably, the challenges of Surfacing eliminated many candidates and winnowed the field of competitors for the prima elections of the Nominating stage.  Atypically, endorsements by Republican officials proved toxic and fundraising paled in comparison to the generation of free coverage in news and social media.

Moreover, the campaign trialogue crystallized neither the issue agenda nor Citizens’ information habits. Citizens appeared to get most of their information from casual exposure to niche news and social media, investing little effort in the pursuit of print news, campaign or interest-based web sites. Possibly for that reason their perceptions of the most important issues at stake changed very little. The paucity of widely shared information about shared concerns underscored the fragmentation of the citizenry and encouraged relative success by candidates who sang the songs popular with a variety of small clusters of citizens.   In these ways the Surfacing stage rhetorically constituted the environment in which the nominations would be contested.

Reference List

Bycoffe, A. (2016, February 1). The endorsement primary. Retrieved from

Cohen, M, Karol, D, Noel, H, & Zaller, J. (2008). The party decides: Presidential nominations before and after reform. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Des Moines Register. (2016, February 2). Take a deeper look at Iowa caucus results. Retrieved from

Federal Election Commission. (2016). 2016 Presidential campaign finance. (Graphic display of candidate finance reports). Retrieved from

Gallup. (2016). Most important problem. Retrieved from

GDELT. (2016, February 1). Presidential campaign 2016: Candidate television tracker. Retrieved from

Gottfried, J., Barthel, M., Shearer, E., & Mitchell, A. (2016, February 4). The 2016 presidential campaign – A news event that’s hard to miss. Pew Research Center: Journalism & Media. Retrieved from

Keller, J. & Yourish, K. (2016, March 10). Which issues each party debates, or ignores. Retrieved from

Mosendz, P. (2016. January 14). Chart: How Republican presidential debate topics compare with the Democratic debate. Retrieved  from

Real Clear Politics. (2016, February 1). Polls.  Retrieved from

Smith, C. A. (2015). Presidential campaign communication (2nd ed.) Cambridge: Polity.

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